His Prelude
His Prelude
Her Prelude
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen

We've made houses for hatred
It's time we made a place
Where people's souls may be seen and made safe
Be careful with each other
These fragile flames
For innocence can't be lost
It just needs to be maintained


He could feel them everywhere. In his hair, on his clothes, underneath his skin. He could feel them searching anxiously, carefully, cautiously for his very core. He could feel them tearing away at his flesh, peeling at his layers of protection and the heart that he claimed to wear on his sleeve. Of course, he no longer wore his heart on his sleeve or on his face. He had learned long ago to tuck his heart away, as safe from the prying eyes as he could manage to be.

The eyes were always there, and he hated the ice that seemed to settle over the room in the spaces where voices did not take the place of judgment. He hated the silence, because the silence meant that they were examining him again, uncovering and discovering him again. He had never understood their need to dissect him, to put him on the industry's lab table and point out his faults until he was more than aware of every defect he'd ever attained.

He reached a hand to his chin and began to tuck his face behind his fingers self-consciously. The pad of his thumb ran along his jaw line, and he grimaced inwardly when he felt a slight rise in level. He was getting another pimple. He could feel it forming, feel the bacteria taking over his pores beneath his thumb. He could already feel their eyes moving to the growing fault, to the one mistake on what was supposed to be the visage of perfection. He could feel their eyes covering his skin again and again until he was nothing but that one, single mistake that covered barely a square millimeter of an otherwise flawless figure. And inside, he assumed the fetal position, wanting more than anything to shrug off their judgmental gazes and condescending smiles.

He could feel himself losing control, though it was his own body, and he could hear the tiny, puny voice of common sense telling him that it didn't matter. It was just a blemish, after all, and perfectly normal. Everyone got pimples. Of course, he wasn't everyone. He couldn't be.

"Mr. Carter, are you listening?"

He nodded yes. He was always listening. He was listening to the ticking of the clock as the meeting continued, the monotone of the voices of the suits telling him what was expected, the drone of the silence that should've been, but wasn't. He was listening to the tiny hint of ice in their eyes and the hum of the stoicism on their faces. He was listening to the sharp edges of their words. He sighed, and all at once, he wondered how a term of respect could be made to sound so condescending.

"Yes, I'm listening. We were talking about a tour."

The man in the suit nodded, and he had the incredible urge to lock the man in his bass drum and force him to sit there through a night at the club. How any of the professionals in front of him could claim to have any real knowledge of music was beyond his comprehension.

"Yes, a tour. The single is getting more than a decent amount of airplay. Prospective album sales are looking promising. The video for 'Help Me' is currently getting frequent play on both MTV and VH1, which is unique for a man of your stature and your previous occupation."

He bit back a bitter remark about that nature of the man's comment. He didn't see his venture as a split from the person he was, and he didn't appreciate the suits trying to separate him from his roots, but he could only hold his tongue. He was too practiced in the art of silence, and too aware of their lack of opinion where his personal feelings were concerned. He was nothing more than a client, and he provided them with pocket money and a place to go every morning. Anything else was too much to discuss in a room where the walls were white and the table polished.

With another, more quiet sigh, he turned back to the conversation.

"...we feel it is necessary that, while you continue to make television appearances and take interviews, you make an effort to be accessible to your audience. As I'm sure you know, a tour would allow you the opportunity to reach out to your listeners in a way that your television and radio appearances have not. Also, Mr. Carter, when you perform, you give the critics a chance to see that you've strayed slightly from the confines of your previous musical endeavors, and you will more likely receive approval from magazines and newspapers that could be crucial to your appeal to our older audience."

Ah, there it is. The critics. The judgment. It's always about how the world sees you, never about the way you see yourself.

He frowned inwardly when he realized that, not only could he barely remember the time when he hadn't cared about how the world saw him; he wasn't exactly sure how he saw himself anymore.

"Now, Mr. Carter, we've taken measures to make sure that the tour maintains more of a live environment than the manufactured, choreographed tours you've previously embarked on. We feel that part of a tour's function is to offer a direct interpretation of the music, and so we feel that you would be best with a live band and a microphone. Playing the instruments you have mastered in the making of this album would also be encouraged."

Outwardly, he was nodding again. He really did agree with their suggestions, and he would've loved nothing more than to play HIS music for a different audience every night. He thrived on the solace he found in the groups of people screaming his name and singing along with the songs into which he had poured his heart and soul (or what remained of them). He needed the approval and affection that the crowds brought, and he needed their energy and their enthusiasm. He had been in the business long enough to know that the fans were the only people in the industry who shared the artist's opinion that his/her career was really "all about the music". The people he was forced to confer with that day were merely his catapult. They were well-experienced in giving him the shove he needed to land among fans and friends. They were his link to the outside world, his channel through which he could broadcast his music.

It was the only reason that he remained in the room with them, letting them move the pieces of his future around in front of him until he was nearly too dizzy and exhausted to live it.

Of course, it was his choice. He let them control him, and he was slowly paying for it with his life. His time wasn't his to give anymore, and his music was no longer his to interpret. Once he had handed the music over to the men in the suits, he had given them the ability to alter it, to change it the way they could so easily change him. And the music had become theirs almost as quickly as he had. His music was suddenly another product of professionalism and a strange affinity for cash. He hated the cheap feeing that came with allowing himself to be another product up for inspection, but he couldn't see that he had many options.

He swallowed his frustration forcefully. Once he finally got out on the road, he wouldn't be a puppet any longer. Being onstage gave him the ability to do anything without regret to bring hesitation and strings to bring him back to the conference room and the condescending smiles.

He looked up with a newfound hope. Once he was on the road, he had the chance of escaping the professional mess that had become his music career.

"And, as you know, the opening act should be a small introduction to the mood of the show. We feel that you need an opening act that represents the same genre of music that you do. We feel that you need an opening act with honest lyrics and a promising future of independent credibility. Despite the commercial success of the Backstreet Boys, we understand this new direction you've decided to take, and we think the best way to introduce that to the public would be to include an opening act that can appeal to those who prefer rock music while also escaping the boundaries of your previous reputation in the industry."

They slid a picture across the table to him, and he was suddenly thrilled to be so far away from them. Though the table was small and the room was quickly becoming smaller, the mahogany between himself and his puppeteers served as a satisfactory divide. When he focused on the grains of wood and the richness of the color, then glanced quickly up at the frowns that slid across the features of the suit in front of him, he realized that it could've been a separation of good and evil.

Of course, he wasn't exactly sure which side he was on anymore. He had sacrificed his words, his opinion, his music, and himself so many times that he wasn't sure whether they had made him or broken him. Somehow, he didn't want to believe that the suits were at all responsible for the man that he had become, but there were the days when he glanced in the mirror and saw nothing more familiar than a fleeting face on the street and a tentative smile built for someone of less purpose and more humanity. His smile, the sincere, shy, hesitant betrayal of some form of momentary happiness, seemed much too human for him. Of course, there were the times that he glanced in the mirror at the same cautious smile and prayed to be that person.

But he couldn't be that person. Instead, he had to be Nick Carter. This, of course, would've been fine if it weren't for the fact that Nick Carter--or, at least, the Nick Carter that the public knew--only existed in photographs and magazines and posters on the bedroom wall of a jaded little girl and her sister.

The Nick Carter whose fingers trembled as he picked up the photograph in front of him had never been photographed or manufactured. The Nick Carter who stared unblinkingly at the pretty brunette on the glossy paper was too vulnerable to meet with the suits and discuss a future that could never be his own. And yet, ironically enough, the Nick Carter who set the picture down in plain view and continued to examine the girl long after he had intended to forget her face was the man who wanted to write the music that would be played every night for an audience.

He shuddered inwardly when he realized how much he wanted to expose himself. When the suit's voice echoed in his ears, he snapped back to attention, still keeping one eye on the photograph. Something about the girl intrigued him. Even from beneath the gloss of the printed paper, she seemed to demand his attention.

"Her name is Adia. She's toured underground coffee shops and clubs, playing for various functions for about a year now, and she always manages to attract a large crowd when she plays. The woman who finally signed her to a label describes her as electric and intense, with a very demanding stage presence and a definite sense of identity. She's very much in touch with her own angst, but she understands how to express her vulnerability as well. She's a very versatile performer, and we feel that..."

His thoughts trailed off as the man continued to ramble about why the suits had made their decision so quickly. He almost laughed at the way they presented their case. "We feel"? If I don't feel, there's no way any of them could have ever felt anything. He wasn't a man of obvious emotion, but he knew instinctually that he was more real than the men across the table would ever be, and that in itself was a frightening thought, because, in his current state of detachment and ambiguity, he didn't consider himself to be real at all.
Come to think of it, I'm not sure what the hell I am anymore...

"With the great amounts we've heard about her and the fact that you are just a debut artist, we didn't feel that any further introduction to your show was needed. We feel that she'll provide a generous amount of entertainment before you're able to offer your presence to the crowd, and she seems to hold her own onstage. She will require a small live band, but her record label was fairly adamant about their ability to assemble one before the tour. She's extremely low maintenance, and she's had enough experience to take on such a challenge as a larger live show." The suit arched his eyebrows expectantly, and the wrinkles in his brows deepened as his black eyes swirled threateningly. "Do you have any objections, Mr. Carter?"

His head was spinning into motion, processing the idea of a female opening act and considering the possibilities and/or consequences, but he somehow managed to swallow his racing thoughts and smile congenially at the men on the other side. "Not at all."  The vulnerable side of him was already singing the old Sarah McLachlan song silently.  "What else do we need to cover?"

Just as predicted, another suit began to ramble on about the day's events and the other publicity appearances he would have to make during the week, and he put on a face of false interest and let his thoughts begin to flow again.

And yet, even as the suit continued to speak, even as he continued to think, he could feel her eyes on him, creeping up from their black and white limitations and leaping into the depths of his soul. He could feel her burning holes in his cracked skin with the intensity of her gaze and could feel her prying at the remains of his identity and searching for the missing pieces of his psyche. He could feel her staring into him, like so many had done before, and he could feel her eyes. In his hair, in his clothes, underneath his skin. However, for the first time, he wasn't at all threatened by her intrusion. Instead, he was strangely comforted by what seemed to be her presence, already lurking in the corners of his head.

"Innocence Maintained" ~ lyrics and music by Jewel, on album SPIRIT